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Falling on His Sword
"We were going out to the agency and live there until we got the presentation ready," Wilkerson later said.
Their job was to make the most convincing, evidence-backed case possible. Powell had little more than a cursory knowledge of the intelligence underlying some of the most damning charges, but in recent months, as pressure built inside the administration and his frustration with the United Nations grew, Powell's language on Iraq had become almost as loose as Cheney's. In a speech to an international economic conference just the week before, he had made charges that his own State Department analysts questioned, mentioning allegations that Iraq had attempted to import uranium and nuclear-related equipment, as well as the presumed ties between Hussein and al-Qaeda.
But that had been only an indictment; this would have to be a complete, trial-worthy prosecution, designed to convince a skeptical jury that capital punishment, in the form of decapitating the Iraqi regime, was warranted.
In addition to proving the charges against Iraq, Wilkerson believed, they had to protect Powell's integrity against those within the administration who had long been out to tarnish it. There was a widespread belief among the secretary's loyal aides -- privately shared by Powell himself, although he brushed it off as meaningless political gamesmanship in conversations with them -- that both White House political adviser Karl Rove and Cheney had actively plotted to undermine him for the past three years. Powell had laughed when he described to his aides how the vice president, after a discussion of the upcoming U.N. speech, had poked him jocularly in the chest and said, "You've got high poll ratings; you can afford to lose a few points." Cheney's idea of Powell's U.N. mission, Wilkerson thought, was to "go up there and sell it, and we'll have moved forward a peg or two. Fall on your damn sword and kill yourself, and I'll be happy, too."
BY THE NEXT DAY, Wilkerson and his team were huddled in the CIA director's conference room, taking the document apart sentence by sentence. Things were not going well. Hannah had brought a clipboard with a three-inch stack of paper that he thumbed through to cite the origin of each allegation -- reports from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, foreign intelligence, the Iraqi National Congress and even newspaper articles.
CIA Director George Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin -- backed up by Robert Walpole, the chief CIA officer for nuclear programs; Lawrence Gershwin, the agency's top adviser on "technical" intelligence; and several other specialists -- were constantly dispatching aides to find the original source material.
In some instances, the "evidence" was, in fact, found in an official intelligence report, but only as unconfirmed information that did not appear in the report's conclusions. "They had left out all the caveats, all the qualifiers," Wilkerson recalled. In a few instances, he thought, they had even changed the meaning of the intelligence. A Senate investigation of the speechwriting process conducted after the invasion would later conclude that the Powell team had had to eliminate "information that the White House had added . . . gathered from finished and raw intelligence," some of which had come from only a single source with no corroboration at all.
By late afternoon, Tenet and Wilkerson agreed to put the White House draft aside and start over, basing the speech on a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq that had been compiled by the CIA the previous fall.
That night, after the senior CIA and White House officials had left for the day, Wilkerson and his colleagues watched a film he had borrowed from the State Department archives of Adlai Stevenson's historic presentation to the Security Council at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
The Soviet Union had angrily denied charges that it had deployed nuclear-armed missiles on the island 90 miles off the Florida coast. Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, had responded with irrefutable proof in the form of 26 grainy, poster-size black-and-white photographs of missile sites shot from a U-2 reconnaissance plane, displayed on easels at the front of the council chamber for all the world to see. That "Stevenson moment," Wilkerson told them, was the effect they were after.
Powell, Libby and Stephen Hadley, Rice's deputy, joined the process the next day.
Cheney had called Powell to say he hoped the secretary would "take a good look at Scooter's stuff." State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who accompanied Powell to the CIA sessions, later recalled Libby himself appealing to Powell to look more carefully at the now-discarded White House material. "Powell said: 'I don't want to. I want to use what Larry's been working on.' "